Ukraine’s counteroffensive did not go as planned, but 2023 was not entirely a loss in its war against Russia. Kyiv scored a major victory last year in the sea while global attention was focused on ground movements.
In the Black Sea, Ukraine forced the Russian fleet to retreat from the historic headquarters of Sevastopol in Crimea after hitting ships and key buildings repeatedly with drones and missiles. That was a personal blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who lauded the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The maritime success also opened a corridor for Ukraine to move grain shipments in defiance of Russia’s decision last summer to cancel an export deal, an economic and symbolic victory in the war.
“Ukraine won in the Black Sea,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a trip to Washington last month.
Zelensky has made the Black Sea victories a central part of his pitch to Western allies and supporters in the past couple of months — a sign of Ukrainian strength after the ground counteroffensive launched in June largely failed, delivering a stalemate on the frontlines of eastern Ukraine.
“This is huge,” said Olga Lautman, nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “They literally shifted the balance in the Black Sea. … Besides practically reopening the Black Sea, they’ve taken out Russia’s navy and pushed them out for the most part. And the attacks continue.”
Ukraine has maintained an edge in the waters of the Black Sea since the war began in February 2022 — and Kyiv does not have a naval force, let alone one the size of the Russian fleet.
In the early days of the war, Ukraine secured its hold on Odesa, a Black Sea port city in southern Ukraine, and sunk the Russian flagship the Moskva.
Ukrainian troops also liberated Snake Island, where defiant Ukrainian troops emerged famous for cursing at a Russian warship, in spring 2022.
In August, Ukraine stepped up attacks on the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, a hub for the Russian navy since Moscow annexed Crimea, but which has historical importance for Russia going back to the 1700s.
In September, one strike damaged the headquarters of the Russian navy in Sevastopol. That month also saw Ukrainian special forces retake oil platforms in the Black Sea from Russia years after Moscow first seized them.
For the next two months, Ukraine kept assaulting Russian ships, leading to a full Russian naval retreat from Sevastopol and western Crimea.
After the fall attacks, Zelensky hailed Ukrainian forces for “pushing the Russian navy out to the eastern part of the Black Sea,” saying they “totally changed” the situation in the maritime domain.
“Russia can no longer use our sea to expand its aggression to other parts of the world,”
Zelensky said in an Oct. 31 address, “Ukraine’s success in the battle for the Black Sea will go down in history books, although it’s not being discussed much today.”
Ukraine has continued to hammer the Russian navy. A late December air attack hit an amphibious landing ship in the city of Feodosia in eastern Crimea, a strategic strike since the target carried drones and ammunition. It also took out a lander that can carry more than 200 troops.
Overall, U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Grant Shapps said Ukraine has managed to wipe out 20 percent of Russia’s navy.
“Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea is now challenged,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Those who believe there’s a stalemate in the Ukraine war are wrong!”
Ukraine’s economy is also boosted by the Black Sea developments.
For most of the war, Putin had allowed Ukrainian grain to ship to the rest of the world through a United Nations agreement. But he canceled that agreement over the summer.
Ukraine responded with a vow to ship grain through a humanitarian corridor anyhow, which was eventually enabled by the Black Sea military victories.
Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said Ukraine has sent more than 200 ships with seven million tons of cargo by early December, which he called a “very welcome boost” to the economy.
Goncharenko said the victories in the Black Sea were on par with Ukraine’s counteroffensive in late 2022 that liberated the Kherson and Kharkiv regions from Russian control.
“In addition to forcing Putin’s fleet to retreat, Ukraine’s attacks on Russian-occupied Crimea have also significantly weakened the logistical networks that are essential for the resupply of the Russian army in southern Ukraine,” Goncharenko wrote for the Atlantic Council.
Ukraine has managed to defeat a large Russian naval force through a savvy use of drones and missiles.
British Storm Shadow long-range missiles, provided in early 2023 to Ukraine, enabled destructive strikes, while the Ukrainians wielded small drone boats for more covert operations.
Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, said the attacks also indicate Ukraine has “really good intelligence inside the Russian military,” pointing to the late December strike taking out Russian drones that could have been used to strike Ukraine.
“That’s a big deal,” he said. “But overall, the Black Sea Fleet isn’t that strategically important. So that’s why I think that the real effects here are psychological.”
While battleground gains typically earn more recognition, naval supremacy is one of the most important factors in war, said Tomasz Blusiewicz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
He explained defeating Russia’s naval blockade and crippling its naval power threatens logistics and supply lines, which could weaken Moscow’s military strength in the long term.
“Since Russia is not able to [blockade Ukraine] successfully, it goes to show that it doesn’t have this technological supremacy that will allow them to blockade Ukraine indefinitely,” he said, arguing it also shows Russia is “not a superpower.”
And Russia is no longer able to launch cruise missiles from ships from Sevastopol and the western parts of the Black Sea.
“It’s important because one less area, one less direction from which the rockets are flying in,” said Blusiewicz, “the easier it is for the Ukraine missile defense to track these missiles and shut them down.”
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